With another Earth Day past, we find our environment and our society facing considerable risk from climate change.

According to the Chicago Climate Action Plan, “Continued global dependence at current levels on coal, gas and oil would radically alter the city’s climate so that a Chicago summer late in this century could feel like that of Mobile, Alabama, today. The number of extremely hot days could increase from the current two days per year to as many as 31 days per year.” 

If climate change is left unchecked, “Chicago could experience extreme heat in the summer, many more heavy rain storms, growing flood risks, stresses on our public health and threats to the city’s economy.”

These forecasts demonstrate a danger for our region that is quite clear, but does not always feel present. It seems easier to delay, and this makes effective action seem impossible. But we can look to the actions of our forebears for inspiration when tackling seemingly impossible challenges.

When the Great Chicago Fire left one-third of the city’s residents homeless, they rebuilt the city from the ground up. When they faced a crisis of dangerous drinking water in the 19th century, they did not shrug and push the problem on to a future generation. They rolled up their sleeves and reversed the Chicago River’s flow to prevent it from polluting their water source. Now, we are called to tackle the massive challenge of global climate change.

It is time to implement a bold, practical policy to address this problem. According to Citizens Climate Lobby, a nonpartisan climate advocacy group, “A national carbon fee and dividend system could reduce carbon emissions to 50% of 1990 levels while adding 2.8 million jobs to the American economy” in just 20 years. Carbon fee and dividend would be a huge step forward on climate change — it is simple, fair and effective, and supported by scientists, economists, and climate advocates. This is our best real option for addressing climate change.

This system would require companies to pay a fee, based on the amount of carbon dioxide they produce, assessed when the fossil fuels are burned. This fee would start low and gradually increase to encourage companies and consumers to move away from fossil fuel production and consumption via a market-based system. The money collected would be returned entirely to American households via a dividend to offset the increased product prices they would pay because of the fee.

This system would reduce carbon emissions practically and steadily, without mandating particular technologies or adding revenues for the government. At the same time, this would spur investment in clean energy and energy efficiency. All Americans, regardless of politics, can come together around this policy and fight back against climate change’s threat to our way of life.

Our forebears built Chicago into a world-class metropolis, home and workplace of millions. At times, the political inertia in Washington, DC and in our own state can make us feel powerless to tackle big challenges.

Taking inspiration from Earth Day, we must heed Daniel Burnham’s admonition to “make no little plans.” Let’s push our national lawmakers to adopt carbon fee and dividend legislation to address climate change, put money in every family’s pockets, and grow the economy for all of us. 

James Schwartz is an Oak Park resident and a volunteer with Citizens Climate Lobby, a climate advocacy organization.

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